Archive for April, 2010

Why Is Bakiev in Minsk?

The ousted Kyrgyz president, Kurmanbek Bakiev, fled his country, disappeared for a while and has now popped up in Belarus. But why Minsk?

The Tulip Revolution Mark 2 in Kyrgyzstan seems to have aroused almost no interest compared to the first one in 2005. Is history too repetitive? Are the main protagonists too well known? I am not sure. After the Orange Revolution in Kiev, each subsequent one was keenly analysed. But they do not get top billing anymore.

Russian media has projected the image of Bakiev as that of a bloody dictator who grabbed power, was elected and even re-elected, but went on to install his family members in top positions, to steal millions from the state budget, investments and foreign loans and who, in the end, ordered troops to shoot at a peaceful crowd in order to save his own bacon. His son Maxim is a very successful businessman who reportedly has ties with the notorious Russian oligarch-in-exile Boris Berezovsky.

Looks like despite its allergy to colour revolutions, Moscow takes sides pretty quickly and has already invited for talks one of the Kyrgyz opposition leaders who toppled Bakiev. In 2005 it was the toppled president Askar Akaev who was invited. And he is still in Russia. Now the sides have flipped.

Bakiev in Minsk looked tired and fearful. He met journalists to say that popular discontent was not so strong, as he had been re-elected just eight months ago. Since 6 April, his family, close associates and security officials have been pressured and intimidated. According to Bakiev, what happened was a well-staged coup d’etat and not a grassroots revolution. He said he left in order to prevent civil war between the south (his home territory) and the north, that he resigned to save the lives of those in his government. He also offered to help in any investigation into the events leading up to his downfall.

Lukashenka has given shelter to Bakiev, depicting him as his Kyrgyz colleague, and has assured him that he, his common-law wife and two children, can stay as long as they need. Bolivar …,um, Belarus can carry double. It will stand by its man no matter what Moscow, Washington or Astana think. That’s presidential decision.

I am not trying to defend anyone’s stand. I am defending the ideas of fairness, equal rights and rule of law. I am surprised not to see any mediators, any international organisations like the OSCE or the UN, any CIS leaders, coming forward to try to resolve the situation and ease tensions in Kyrgyzstan. The guns of the Tulip Revolution Mark 2 have produced no echo.

For many people in Europe, it is probably a piddling detail which name is attached to the title President of Kyrgyzstan. But Central Asia is a crossroads for the interests of the world’s great powers. It is an unstable region and it merits constant attention.

So Bakiev is in Minsk, Akaev is in Moscow. But it’s not about them or Russia, it’s about a different country. Kyrgyzstan still needs help.

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Hello Gays!

Not only are politicians from Russia and Belarus for unity, but homosexuals from both countries too. The latter are more successful at uniting, but have little chance of being recognised.

Last year in Moscow, gay activists from Belarus and Russia organised the first Slavic Gay Pride during the Eurovision Song Contest, enjoyed by gay communities in Europe. It was dispersed with violence. This year it is Minsk’s turn – to host this demo on May 15. The organisers already applied for permission with the city authorities, but have not got a reply yet.

Belarus is actually almost a safe haven for gays and lesbians. Homophobia is directed more against those who defend their rights. So the gay scene is not easily detectable but lively, with an underground network of private organisations and rotating gay nights at bars and clubs. The couple of gay bars that exist in Minsk have no signs outside so they don’t draw any attention to themselves. But gays and lesbians also meet in public spaces, like parks in the city centre to chat and get connected but not be exposed. There are a number of active LGBT organisations operating through websites. Gay tourists can even get gay guides to explore the city and the scene.

LGBT activists complain that they are invisible for all possible powers in Belarus, as neither the authorities nor the opposition stand up for their rights. But while some opposition parties are openly hostile to gays, others (like the Belarusian Green Party) have recently started initiatives for sexual and gender equality.

Public awareness of these issues is still very low: gays are not forbidden but they are excluded from any sphere and so can be said not to exist. The subculture is partly recognised as diva shows and beauty pageants make it to magazines and TV programmes on night life and showbiz. But official discourse never mentions gays or lesbians.

Organised groups have gone as far as Brussels to seek support. In autumn 2009, the first big LGBT conference in Minsk was attended by guests and diplomats from EU countries. Ties with Russian gays are not very new either. But this year’s attempt to march together in Minsk is a first. The rapprochement between the Belarusian authorities and the EU allows for hope that no violence will be used against the demonstrators. There’s less hope that the LGBT community will be able to come out. As there was no sex in the Soviet Union, there are no homosexuals in Belarus.

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Kaczynski’s Fault

One of the most popular official slogans in Belarus is that we are in the “center” or – better still – in the “heart” of Europe. Sometimes it would be better if this “heart” remained silent…

I almost choked when I heard the president of our central European country explain to journalists that the plane crash near Smolensk must have been Lech Kaczynski’s own fault, that he must have ordered it to land. “If the president is on board,” Lukashenka said, “the president has the last word: to land or not to land. But the pilot could disobey, of course.”

He also expressed his condolences. But, good God, Belarus is today the only one of Poland’s neighbours which has not declared official mourning. This special neighbour who shares not just a border, but also history and culture. A lot of countries in Europe and around the world (Brazil!) offered their support to the Polish people by this gesture, even if only pro forma.

But isn’t it too early to blame poor president Kaczynski, who hasn’t even been buried yet? Before the experts give their verdict and the investigation is closed. Kaczynski was a weird politician and diplomat, why compete with him after his death? Lukashenka’s comment is from someone who comes from the centre of Europe but can’t live up to it.

There is a right time and a right place for everything. Whether you are on or off the plane. Even if you are a president.

My condolences to the Polish people on the air crash and the story it might turn into. Hopefully the Kaczynski’s party, the PIS, would not suggest the pyramids as the burial site…

P.S. Lukashenka paid respects to Polish president.

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Are you not from Belarus?

Does your family come from Belarus? No? Are you sure? The borders were changed so many times it can be hard to know where that grandma of yours really comes from: Russia, Poland, Ukraine or Belarus. Think twice – you could join quite a hall of fame.

The are two main groups of Belarus-born people. You can illustrate them via the presidents of Israel and Ukraine. The Jewish family of Shimon Peres left Belarus to help create the newly-established country. The family of Viktor Yanukovych left simply looking for a job.

Belarus’ Jewish communities in Pinsk, Bobruisk and Vitebsk gave the world Marc Chagall and his teacher Yehuda Pen, the writers Mendele Mocher Sforim, David Pinski and Solomon Simon and the lexicographer Eliezer Ben Yehuda. You might say the writer Etgar Keret is Israeli, but his father was born here. The Israeli politicians Chaim Weizmann, Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir are ‘ours,’ as is the family of Golda Meir.

Belarusian Jewish migrants to the US gave us Kirk Douglas, Ralph Lauren and Steven Ballmer (yes, the Microsoft CEO). Philip Chess, the co-founder of Chess Records, was born in Belarus, as was David Sarnoff, the pioneer of American commercial radio and television and the songwriter Irving Berlin. Belarusian Jews made great American scientists and chess players.

They ended up in all sorts of places – Belarus-born Sidney Baevski Myer created Myer, Australia’s largest chain of department stores.

The notorious Soviet diplomat Andrei Gromyko (a.k.a. Mr No), the Russian politician Anatoly Chubais and stateswoman Valeriya Novodvorskaya are from here.

The families of US actors Lisa Kudrow and David Suchet moved from Belarus. I think we can also claim one of Leonardo DiCaprio’s grannies!

Who takes your fancy? The builder of Russia’s Sukhoi military jets, Pavel Sukhoi? The founder of cultural-historical psychology, Lev Vygotsky? Gymnast Olga Korbut? Maybe the father of the Cheka (the Bolshevik secret police), Felix Dzerzhinsky, or his colleague, the the first man to take charge of both Israeli secret services, the Mossad and the Shin Bet, Isser Harel?

How about Stuttgart midfield Alexander Hleb? Ice hockey forward Andrei Kostitsyn? His brother, winger Sergei Kostitsyn? The wrestler Alexander Medved? The winner of the 2009 World Chess Cup, Boris Gelfand? Fashion model Maryna Linchuk?

I could also give you the great Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky, the Polish composer Michal Kleofas Oginski and the Polish writer Ryszard Kapuscinski. The first lady of the Republic of China on Taiwan Faina Chiang Fang-liang (born Vakhreva) as well as Marina, the wife of Lee Harvey Oswald, come from Belarus.

You might argue that they are not Belarusians sensu stricto. But they were born here. There must be something in the air. Maybe the water.

Globalisation negates the importance of a person’s place of birth. But there are people who left Belarus and remained Belarusians, accentuated their origin. In these brand new lives in Argentina or the UK, they mad space for the Belarusian language and traditions.

Not all of our eminent emigres are figures of history.

Living in the Netherlands today is the Belarusian artist Andrei Zadorine, in France, Boris Zaborov, in Brussels, Natalia Zaloznaya and Igor Tishin live in Brussels. Their student Andrey Dureiko lives in Germany. All over the world there are successful Belarusians in banking, design, computing.

But the number one Belarusian in the world is Boris Kit. This outstanding rocket scientist and Belarusian turned 100 a couple of days ago. Today he lives in Frankfurt am Main but remains truly devoted to his language and his motherland. Perhaps he is the man to make you feel that, in fact, it is a pity not to come from Belarus…

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